NAACP probes school arrests

Critics say 15 cases at Shore high school were mishandled

May 12, 2007|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,sun reporter

Police officers assigned to a small Eastern Shore high school arrested more than a dozen students in recent months for what critics say was simply misbehavior - prompting investigations by the NAACP and the Maryland attorney general's office.

In one case, a 14-year-old girl known as a good student was handcuffed and escorted to the principal's office for talking back to an officer and refusing to sit down.

The spate of arrests at Crisfield High School apparently began after the town Police Department stationed an officer at the high school in January. Between then and March 20, police officers arrested 15 students for a variety of offenses, nine of which were for disorderly conduct along with a second charge of resisting arrest or failing to obey.

Of the students who were arrested, seven were 14 years old, one was 13 and the rest were 15 to 17, according to a report by the Somerset County schools superintendent, Karen-Lee Brofee.

Brofee said in an interview this week that she believes the officers were "not out of line."

"A number of our students felt they did not need to respect the officer, and situations escalated into arrests," Brofee said. "The officer was not idly arresting kids for minor misbehaviors."

But Julius Thompson, whose 14-year-old daughter, Jamie, was arrested and handcuffed, disagrees. He said she became hysterical when she was handcuffed and began screaming - and he blames the officer's conduct for causing the incident to escalate.

He discussed his daughter's arrest with Brofee and the principal before calling the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and filing a formal complaint. In a March 7 letter to Thompson, Brofee wrote that Jamie is a good student who does not misbehave, but she had three chances to avoid being arrested. She could have sat down, given the officer her phone number when asked, and showed her hall pass.

Brofee acknowledged, however, that the incident could have "easily and agreeably been handled by an administrator." Since no one was available at the time, she said, the officer intervened and the situation became more difficult. "Handcuffs are humiliating; undoubtedly they raised panic and escalated the situation further with Jamie becoming bruised on her arms and wrists," Brofee wrote.

She said in an interview that the school system made a mistake in failing to prepare students for the police presence. Once the students were told they had to obey the officer, Brofee said, the arrests stopped. "Students are fast learners," she said.

Carl Snowden, director of the state attorney general's Office for Civil Rights, said he has requested information from the superintendent and the Police Department. He will look at how each student was handled to see if there was bias, he said.

Crisfield police officials did not respond to requests for comment.

Thompson said his daughter's arm was swollen after being handcuffed. "I called the NAACP and filed a formal complaint," he said.

Of the 15 students arrested, eight were black, school officials said. African-Americans represent about 45 percent of the students in the system. Half of those arrested were girls.

"I don't think there was racial intent behind this," said Kirkland Hall, chairman of the Somerset County NAACP's education committee. The police officer who made most of the arrests was African-American, he said. He added, however, that he believes there needs to be a change in policy to clarify when a police or "resource" officer is to get involved in discipline. "The role [of the officer] is not to handle disorderly conduct," he said.

In a meeting with the school principal and the superintendent, Hall said, the school officials agreed to change the policy to make sure that principals and administrators handle unruly students, not police officers. Brofee, however, said the policy had not changed.

Hall said he spends time in schools and understands that students can be difficult. "I am appalled at the conduct I see in schools," he said. He hopes more parents in the county will get involved in their children's schools.

State regulations say that whenever possible, a student should not be arrested during school hours or on school property. In addition, police should try not to put a student in an "embarrassing situation" during an arrest.

Student arrests in most school systems are generally for offenses that involve violence, weapons or drugs .

About 450 students attend Crisfield High School. By comparison, eight students were arrested from January through March at Baltimore's Reginald Lewis High School, which has an enrollment of 660. The charges at Reginald Lewis included assaulting a police officer, possession of weapons and drugs, and destruction of property.

Across the state, more unarmed police are being assigned to schools. The officers' job is, in part, like that of a beat police officer on a city block. They are to establish relationships with students so that they can give advice and reduce the number of fights, drugs and other problems in schools.

Thompson said the Crisfield students were all released to their parents and referred to the Department of Juvenile Services. Many of the students had never been in trouble before, he said. The department would not discuss the cases.

Thompson said he has asked for a court date. "I want a judge to see who they had handcuffed," he said.

liz.bowie@baltsun.com

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